"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
“your poems about the girls will still be around
50 years from now when the girls are gone,”
my editor phones me.
the girls appear to be gone
I know what you mean
but give me one truly alive woman
walking across the floor toward me
and you can have all the poems
the good ones
the bad ones
or any that I might write
after this one.
I know what you mean.
do you know what I mean?
Many of Charles Bukowski’s poems go something like this: ‘I went out/stayed in drinking last night. A woman came round. We had sex. We had an argument. We woke up, had an argument and had sex. She left. I lit a cigarette.’
I exaggerate, but not much. I do it with affection because I love Bukowski’s poems. He writes about low life, bar and club life, life at the racing track. He writes about hangovers and casual sex. He swears a lot, though not in this particular poem. The swearing is important, as Stephen King explains in On Writing:
If you substitute ‘Oh sugar!’ for ‘Oh shit!’ because you’re thinking about the Legion of Decency, you are breaking the unspoken contract that exists between writer and reader – your promise to express the truth of how people act and talk.
In poetry as in life, no words are forbidden – but in poetry as in life, if you swear only to shock, it bores the audience and makes you look childish. Bukowski knows that his subjects and his language shock, and no doubt he enjoys it: but I think he also does it ‘to express the truth of how people act and talk’ in his world. Time and again he returns to the idea that most people live sedate, safe lives at the expense of risk and emotional exposure. He and his barfly friends might be looked down on, but they are feeling the real joys and pains. You don’t have to agree with him to believe that he believes it.
As with Ian McMillan yesterday, Bukowski earths a grandiose statement with down-to-earth wit. The editor flatters him that his poems will still be read ’50 years from now when the girls are gone.’ His reply gives a blast of bathos; ‘dear editor: / the girls appear to be gone/ already.’
Why the absence of capital letters? Surely not for the same reasons as EE Cummings, who wanted to refresh and shake up the language by surprising the reader. Bukowski uses punctuation and capitals when they’re essential to meaning. I suspect that he leaves them out elsewhere because he likes a bit of dishevelment. He doesn’t want to wear a tie, as it were, or toe someone else’s line regarding the tidiness of a sentence. That’s how it reads to me.
If you don’t have much time for free verse, this poem may not persuade you but I think it’s a fine example. At first sight it might seem randomly put together, but look at the line breaks. Each one gives a little moment of suspense or emphasis. That dry ‘dear editor:’ is heavy with cod-formal sarcasm, while ‘the girls appear to be gone’ knowingly echoes the editor’s own phrase. The word ‘gone’ sits heavily at the line end and ‘already’ sits on its own, making us think about it. Already they’ve gone. The girls are gone too soon, and the fame not yet arrived.
Look at the word ‘tonight’ also on its own line. Imagine if the previous line simply ran on like this:
give me one truly alive woman tonight
walking across the floor toward me
See how Bukowski’s line break makes you give much more attention to the word tonight? It makes this a much more raw declaration of need – tonight is when I need her, now you fool. If you think I’m giving the poet too much credit and the emphasis is merely accidental (something we often think when technique is well applied) then refer back to the title, also tonight. It may mean ‘this happened tonight,’ but it’s also a signpost to the poem’s most important word. Bukowski is a hedonist. Give him ‘one truly alive woman/ tonight/ walking across the floor toward me’ – a simple, animal demand, with ME at the end of the line for emphasis – give him that, ‘and you can have all the poems’. It’s a Faustian deal, with a junkie’s eagerness to trade everything for a fix.
I’ve said before that things stand for other things in poetry. The woman is a woman, of course, but surely she represents every worldly pleasure. Give me wine, women and song, and fame can go hang itself. The last two lines also have more than their face value. He repeats his claim, ‘I know what you mean.’ But this time he counters ‘do you know what I mean?’ The questions too stand for something else. He does know what the editor literally means; Bukowski’s own fame will outlive the women. But does the editor understand that he’s still hungry, and hungry for something more (or less) than fame – or is he one of those who will never understand? The question is left hanging. Bukowski will have to keep writing and writing in an effort to explain, and so will the rest of us.
[From The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems, 1951-1993, (Harper Collins 2007). If you’re enjoying these April blogs and want to make a small (or enormous) donation to say so, please click here to do so via PayPal.]